Bullies, thwarted love, vengeance, guns and senseless death surfaced as themes Tuesday in the first day of Brandon Cook's murder trial at the Richland County courthouse.
"It started with a fistfight over a girl," Fifth Circuit assistant prosecutor Dan Goldberg told the jury in an opening statement, in describing how Cook, 20, wound up shooting to death an innocent bystander, Torsheena Davis, in her home two years ago.
Davis, 32, whom Goldberg described as a "devoted wife" and "beloved mother of five children," lived in an apartment next to the 16-year-old Cook was trying to kill when he fired seven shots at the building on Dec. 10, 2007, prosecutors said.
Cook's intended victim, Eric Grant, was a "bully" known for beating up people, Fifth Circuit assistant public defender Jim May told the jury of nine women and three men in his opening.
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Cook feared for his life, and the neighborhood around housing project Gable Oaks is a dangerous place where police sometimes let residents fend for themselves, May said.
"This isn't Shandon," said May, citing the Columbia community known for high-priced houses and low crime.
"(Sheriff) Leon Lott calls this (Gable Oaks area) the worst neighborhood in the county," May said.
May conceded Cook fired the shot that killed Davis but stressed his intent was not to kill her.
Cook had been beaten up twice by Grant that day, and Grant also had threatened to kill Cook for hanging around Grant's 14-year-old girlfriend, Tiara Brown, May said.
Smacking one hand loudly against the other and stomping the floor with force, May re-enacted the violence Cook suffered at Grant's hands.
"Brandon is limping," May said, "he is bloodied."
After the beating, Cook went to shoot Grant before Grant got him, May said. "The intent was not evil - the intent was desperation."
Cook's state of mind is key if defense attorneys are to get him a lighter sentence if he is found guilty.
Currently, Cook is charged only with murder, which carries a sentence of 30 years to life. However, if Circuit Judge Michelle Childs decides to let the jury consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, that charge carries a sentence of two to 30 years.
Childs most likely will not make a decision on whether to allow the jury to consider a lesser charge - with a lesser penalty - until both sides have presented their cases.
Out of the jury's hearing Tuesday, prosecution and defense attorneys clashed over whether the defense could present evidence that Grant was a member of a local gang, the Certified Head Busters.
May argued it's important to show the jury that Grant's membership in the Certified Head Busters added to Cook's fear - fear that made Cook try to kill Grant first.
"A reasonable person would be more fearful of a gang member than a non-gang member," May argued.
But prosecutors replied there's little evidence to show Grant is a gang member and, in any event, Davis' killing has nothing to do with gangs.
"This is not a gang-related incident. This is over a girl," argued assistant prosecutor Vanessa Shipley.
In the end, the judge wouldn't allow testimony that would indicate Grant was a gang member, or even a "local organization" called the Certified Head Busters.
- Prosecutors presented evidence to show Cook, though smaller than Grant, didn't shy away from the first fight and - hours before killing Davis - turned down a chance to have police intervene in the dispute. Cook also threatened to kill Grant, they said.
- Davis' son, Saquan Davis, 14, described how he found his mom on the floor bleeding, then ran next door to have a neighbor call 911. The last words he heard his mother say were, "Oh, God," Saquan testified.
The trial resumes today.